Ten Tuesday Scribbles: On Kentucky, Florida, Minnesota, Canadian Imports, and More…

Posted by Brian Otskey on December 4th, 2012

Brian Otskey is an RTC columnist. Every Tuesday during the regular season he’ll be giving his 10 thoughts on the previous week’s action. You can find him on Twitter @botskey

  1. When the AP Top 25 was released Monday afternoon, Kentucky wound up unranked for the first time in the John Calipari era after a blowout loss to Notre Dame and a home setback to Baylor, UK’s first loss at Rupp Arena under Calipari (UK remains ranked at #20 here at RTC). Kentucky’s drop from #8 to unranked was the largest in AP poll history since the poll expanded to include 25 teams in 1990. Now we all know college basketball polls don’t really matter (unlike a certain other collegiate sport) so this is just something to discuss among basketball junkies. But seriously, do people really believe this isn’t one of the Top 25 teams in the country? I guess it depends on your philosophy when it comes to filling out a ballot. If you’re going purely by record, sure the Wildcats shouldn’t be ranked at 4-3. But a deeper inspection reveals a team with a win over Maryland, one that could turn into a very good win if the Terrapins sustain their early season level of play, and three losses to very good basketball teams (Duke, Notre Dame and Baylor). The Wildcats aren’t anywhere near last year’s juggernaut but until they lose to a bad team or the losses to good teams keep piling up, I’ll continue to rank Kentucky and won’t overreact. What are the issues Calipari faces? Number one, Ryan Harrow has proven not to be the answer at point guard. Archie Goodwin has been forced to be the primary ballhandler and is turning the ball over more than three times per game. Second, Kentucky’s rebounding and defense has taken a dip from last year but who didn’t expect that? Anthony Davis is in New Orleans now, not Lexington. Third, the team is relying exclusively on freshmen, one sophomore (Kyle Wiltjer, who does need to pick his game up) and two transfers. There is no veteran presence who has been through the SEC wars like Doron Lamb and Darius Miller had been last season. While Cal’s teams have had tremendous freshmen talent, the presence of Miller and Lamb pushed the team over the top last year. Without that crucial element, Kentucky will continue to struggle with immature plays and poor decision-making. However, I’m sure that Calipari will find a way to make things work eventually. Let’s not panic in early December because Kentucky lost three games to Top 25 teams.

    Coach Cal’s Team Is Now Unranked, But Don’t Panic Yet

  2. With Kentucky struggling to find its way right now, Florida has emerged as the early favorite in the SEC. The Gators are 6-0 with a pair of blowout wins over Wisconsin and Marquette and a nice “neutral” court win over a good Middle Tennessee team. It’s pretty clear that Florida is for real but the schedule ramps up in a big way this month with tomorrow’s road trip to rival Florida State followed 10 days later by a visit to Arizona and a quasi-road game against Kansas State in Kansas City on December 22. Everyone knows about Florida’s high-powered offensive attack but the most astonishing thing about this team has been its defense. This could very well be Billy Donovan’s best defensive team in Gainesville. Florida leads the nation in scoring defense, giving up just 48.5 PPG to date. The Gators are fourth in defensive efficiency and have also improved their rebounding from a year ago with Patric Young and Will Yeguete doing most of the work on the boards but even UF’s guards are contributing to that effort as well. Florida is just as efficient on the offensive end of the floor with balanced scoring and depth. Seven Gators are averaging at least seven points per game, led by Kenny Boynton. Donovan has to be thrilled with senior Erik Murphy, someone who is an absolute match-up nightmare for almost every opponent because of his length, versatility and ability to stretch defenses. When Murphy hangs out on the perimeter he can hit shots or open up gaps for his teammates to drive and score, or get to the line as Florida has done so well this year. His numbers don’t jump off the stat sheet at you but he’s such a valuable asset to this team. Murphy has had his share of off-court problems and here’s to hoping he’s learned from that and takes on a leadership role for his team as a senior. He’s off to a great start and it wouldn’t surprise anyone to see Florida in the top 10 all year long. Read the rest of this entry »
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Ten Tuesday Scribbles: On Indiana, Georgetown, Duke and More…

Posted by Brian Otskey on November 27th, 2012

Brian Otskey is an RTC columnist. Every Tuesday during the regular season he’ll be giving his 10 thoughts on the previous week’s action. You can find him on Twitter @botskey

  1. I was extremely lucky to be sitting courtside for the first truly great game of this young college basketball season last Tuesday night in Brooklyn where Indiana defeated Georgetown in overtime to win the Legends Classic. IU head coach Tom Crean called it an “epic November battle” and boy, was it ever. The level of play displayed by both teams was incredible for this early in the season, something media row couldn’t stop buzzing about. It was as well-played a game I have seen in quite some time and the atmosphere in the building made it all the more special. Most folks thought we’d be seeing Indiana against UCLA in the championship game but it’s funny how fate works out. The Hoyas proved to be a much better opponent than UCLA and gave IU all it could handle. I’ll give you some of my thoughts on each of the four Legends Classic teams, starting with Indiana: You could call me a skeptic because I didn’t have Indiana pegged as a sure-fire Final Four team but the Hoosiers proved they’ll be in the thick of it come March. Indiana’s offensive attack is second-to-none in college basketball and I love the balance this team has. Jordan Hulls is as pure of a shooter as you’ll find but his leadership and defensive improvement are two things that can take Indiana to the next level. Hulls was all over the floor on both ends and Indiana’s best player in the two games at the Barclays Center. Crean has so many weapons to choose from including Hulls, Cody Zeller, Victor Oladipo, Christian Watford and more. Oladipo’s athleticism is terrific while Zeller is Mr. Steady. Even Will Sheehey adds a spark off the bench with his leadership and intensity. Where does IU have to improve? Two areas stood out to me.

    Georgetown Players Had No Reason to Hang Their Heads (Washington Post)

    One, Zeller needs to get more touches. Part of that comes from him needing to work harder for position and demand the ball but it wouldn’t hurt if Indiana’s guards looked to him some more. Second is tightening up their defense. The Hoosiers showed a zone for a large part of the game and Georgetown took advantage with spectacular ball movement. Indiana is a better defensive team this year but it’ll have to tighten that up some more in order to win a national championship. I was overwhelmed by Georgetown’s ability to move the ball and get good shots. This shouldn’t be a surprise given past Hoyas teams but this may be John Thompson III’s best unit not in terms of talent but in terms of basketball IQ. The Hoyas probed Indiana’s defense with precision and overcame a talent disadvantage to the point of almost knocking off the top team in the land. Markel Starks is the most improved Hoya but Otto Porter is their undisputed leader and star player. Porter worked the high post all night against IU’s zone to rave reviews and was a strong presence on defense as well. Even in a loss, Georgetown established itself as a Big East contender. UCLA and Georgia rounded out the Legends Classic. The Bruins are an absolute mess defensively and the lack of hustle and intensity is a major red flag. Shabazz Muhammad made his debut and scored a lot of points but didn’t “wow” anyone. Kyle Anderson seems lost offensively and isn’t having the impact many thought he would. Jordan Adams looks like a future star but this team needs to start defending and playing with a purpose if it has any intention of saving Ben Howland’s job. Things are not pretty in Westwood, especially after Sunday night’s stunning collapse and defeat at the hands of Cal Poly. As for Georgia, it was clearly the worst of the teams in this event. That doesn’t mean the Bulldogs are a terrible team but I would be surprised to see them in NCAA contention. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is a very good scorer but his shot selection leaves a lot to be desired. I don’t think Georgia is as bad as early losses to Southern Miss and Youngstown State would seem to indicate but I don’t see this team winning more than seven or eight games in the SEC. They do play hard and didn’t back down against two blue-blood opponents.

  2. Two of the 10,000+ people in the seats at the Barclays Center last Tuesday night were Hanner Mosquera-Perea and Peter Jurkin, two Indiana freshmen currently serving out a nine game NCAA suspension for receiving impermissible benefits. Both players lost their appeal to have the suspension shortened and will not be eligible until Indiana’s game against Butler on December 15. This all stems from $6,000 to $8,000 in impermissible benefits received via Indiana Elite AAU coach Mark Adams, an individual deemed an Indiana donor because of a total of $185 in donations he gave to the university over 20 years ago, ironically before either of these two players was born. On this surface this seems like a severe miscarriage of justice, especially in light of Shabazz Muhammad’s outcome after a shady recruitment. Muhammad only had to sit out three games for UCLA while Mosquera-Perea, a four-star forward who is expected to contribute off the bench for IU, and Jurkin, a 7’0” center, have to sit out nine games (roughly 29% of Indiana’s regular season). Maybe it is. But look a little deeper and the situation gets murkier. Adams has a VERY close relationship with Indiana, so much so that the NCAA deemed it “unique access and continuous involvement.” As a result, Indiana has suspended its relationship with Adams until next July. Adams lived with Mosquera-Perea and Jurkin in Bloomington on multiple occasions according to published reports and has been involved with some former Indiana basketball players as well. Benefits provided to the players include, among other things, plane tickets, housing, a laptop and a cell phone according to a report in USA Today. It’s hard to make a decision when you look at the facts of the case but my hunch is the NCAA has more on these two players that it isn’t willing to make public. If that’s the case, it’s a shame. Transparency is not the NCAA’s forte and further feeds the criticism of the organization. The bottom line, from my perspective, is that I believe a suspension is warranted. Should that suspension be nine games based on the available facts? I don’t think so. Something more along the lines of what Muhammad received seems appropriate in this case. Read the rest of this entry »
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Ten Tuesday Scribbles: On Realignment, UConn, Maui and More…

Posted by Brian Otskey on November 20th, 2012

Brian Otskey is a regular contributor for RTC. Every Tuesday during the regular season he’ll be giving his 10 thoughts on the previous week’s action. You can find him on Twitter @botskey

  1. As someone who doesn’t watch one minute of college football but loves college basketball to no end, conference realignment frustrates me to no end as you might imagine. It’s actually quite depressing and I hate talking/writing about it. However, it’s a relevant story and must be discussed because of the far-reaching impacts it will have on the sport I love. I realize this is all about “stability,” TV markets and football. It bothers me like nothing else but I accept it. I’m in the minority when it comes to this and the minority holds very little influence in our country. The consequences (both intended and unintended) of realignment for basketball are distressing. The Big East conference, the pre-eminent college basketball league for the last 25 to 30 years, is on life support. The conference I grew up watching, with the best conference tournament of them all, is all but gone. Yes, Connecticut and Louisville are still in the league, but make no mistake, they’ll bolt at the first opportunity they get as we saw this week with Rutgers going to the Big Ten. Once everything shakes out, I find it hard to believe any Big East football program will remain in the league. It simply makes no sense to do so at this point and they’re looking out for themselves in doing so. I don’t blame them. I blame the greedy conference leadership concerned about how many eyeballs the Big Ten Network can draw in New York and New Jersey, the schools who set this in motion (Syracuse and Pittsburgh), and the Big East as a whole for turning down a massive TV deal that could have given the conference a great deal of security. Once the football schools leave, the Big East will be down to seven Catholic basketball-only schools: DePaul, Georgetown, Marquette, Providence, St. John’s, Seton Hall and Villanova. As an alumnus and fan of one of those seven schools, this pains me greatly. I could live with Pittsburgh, West Virginia and Notre Dame leaving the league. The real punch to the gut was Syracuse, a Big East founding member, saying it could find long-term stability in the ACC. The final, fatal blow will be Connecticut and/or Louisville bolting, likely in short order. The basketball-only schools have no leverage and must wait and see as everything crashes around them. Hopefully they get together, keep the Big East name and pick up a few other schools like Butler, St. Joe’s and Xavier. That wouldn’t be a bad league and it would get back to the roots of the Big East, basketball and basketball only.

    The Big East Needs to Find Its Roots in Basketball

  2. How does realignment affect other schools and conferences?  For one, the bottom teams in the ACC may stay there for a very long time. With Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame coming in (and possibly Connecticut/Louisville), how will schools like Wake Forest and Boston College compete? There will be a good five or six programs ahead of them each and every year, plus they have to battle it out with the likes of Clemson, Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech just to make it into the middle of the pack. It’s a vicious cycle that will keep programs like these as the bottom of their respective conference for many years to come. They always said it was tough to climb up the Big East ladder but now the ACC is effectively the Big East (six of the ACC’s 14 future members, not including Maryland, will be former Big East schools). It’s going to be extraordinarily tough for schools like Boston College to compete in the revamped ACC. Only the strong shall survive in conference realignment, it seems. As for the Big Ten, the impact isn’t as significant. Penn State, Nebraska and Northwestern will always be among the worst programs in the league but the climb to respectability isn’t as difficult. Look at Northwestern. The Wildcats have never made the NCAA Tournament despite knocking on the door in the last few seasons, showing how it isn’t impossible to climb the conference ladder. Now though, the addition of a similarly starved program at Rutgers and a strong program at Maryland makes it more difficult for Northwestern to make a move. It’s uncertain what Rutgers is getting itself into. The Scarlet Knights haven’t made the NCAA Tournament in 22 seasons but have shown signs of progress under Mike Rice. You have to think it can go either way for Rutgers. The new recruiting avenues can help but the school is already situated in the middle of the talent-rich New York City area. That said, road trips to Wisconsin and Michigan State aren’t as simple as heading over to St. John’s or up to Providence. I’d lean towards Rutgers struggling in the Big Ten. Read the rest of this entry »
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Ten Tuesday Scribbles: On November Rituals, Head-Scratchers, and More…

Posted by Brian Otskey on November 13th, 2012

Brian Otskey is a regular contributor for RTC. Every Tuesday during the regular season he’ll be giving his 10 thoughts on the previous week’s action. You can find him on Twitter @botskey

  1. In what seems to have become an annual November ritual, fans and members of the media tend to overreact in making bold statements about teams and players after just one or two games have been played. While I recognize that is the nature of the “what have you done for me lately?” society we live in, fans and the media alike must take a step back. While some early season wins may appear to be huge and some losses head-scratching, we all must remember that the college basketball season is a long, evolving process. The NCAA Tournament doesn’t begin for another four months. Most teams will play 12 non-conference games before they begin 16 or 18-game conference schedules.  It’s OK to say something nice about a team that came up with a great early season win or to be skeptical of a school coming off a loss you might never have expected, but making statements such as “Florida State is a bust because it lost to South Alabama!” is just plain foolish. While a loss like that certainly gives you pause, we’ve seen this movie before time and time again in November, especially as the college season has started earlier and earlier over the years. A loss to South Alabama is hardly a definitive indicator of how Florida State will perform in 2012-13. It’s just one of 30+ games the Seminoles will play this season. With that said, I do have a couple of questions about FSU. One, does the team miss the steady point guard presence of Luke Loucks from a season ago (nine assists, 17 turnovers against USA)? Two, is Leonard Hamilton’s defense not as strong as we are accustomed to seeing? South Alabama shot 9-of-15 from deep and Buffalo shot 50% overall from the floor in FSU’s second game on Monday. Those are examples of legitimate concerns, but not affirmative statements about how Florida State’s season will turn out. The Seminoles have plenty of time to come together and fix their weaknesses. Just don’t bury Florida State, or any other team for that matter, before Thanksgiving for crying out loud.

    How Much is FSU Missing Luke Loucks Right Now? (Reuters)

  2. There were quite a few of those aforementioned head-scratchers over the first four days of the season. In addition to Florida State, teams such as Mississippi State, Virginia, Rutgers, South Florida, Purdue, Drexel and Georgia all started the season on the wrong foot. Other schools including Oklahoma State, Texas and Providence struggled with inferior opponents but managed to hang on and win. In some circumstances like those faced at Mississippi State, Virginia, Georgia and Purdue, these are teams rebuilding after critical personnel losses. While it’s unfair to blast their November performance, these losses could be a sign of things to come. On the other hand, you could say a team like Drexel just had a bad night. The Dragons are a talented bunch and the overwhelming favorites in the depleted Colonial Athletic Association. Above all, however, the worst loss of them all belongs to North Texas. The Sun Belt favorites, who boast the talented Tony Mitchell, lost to Division II Alabama-Huntsville on Monday night. What does this mean? Not a whole lot in the grand scheme of things but it underscores how important it is for teams to put forth maximum effort every time out. The instances in which a team can get away with an off night have shrunk over the years due to parity and better talent assembled on non-power six rosters. When trying to analyze a team at this early stage of the season, don’t dismiss a disappointing loss but don’t throw the team under the bus at the same time. There is a very long way to go. Read the rest of this entry »
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Ten Offseason Scribbles

Posted by zhayes9 on June 1st, 2011

Zach Hayes is an editor, contributor and bracketologist for Rush the Court.

It was easy to get energized about Vanderbilt’s chances next season once the somewhat surprising news was announced that versatile swingman Jeffery Taylor would return for his senior campaign. Taylor joining forces with an experienced and talented guard tandem of John Jenkins and Brad Tinsley, along with efficient big man Festus Ezeli and quite a bit of depth, immediately gave folks in Nashville reason to believe they could contend with the powerhouse roster Kentucky assembled in the SEC. While those are four legitimate reasons for excitement – it’s awfully rare a team without a brand name like Duke, Carolina, Kentucky or UCLA returns their top four scorers (including three possible first round picks) from a top-15 efficient offense in the one-and-done era – I won’t be completely sold on Vanderbilt’s chances to usurp the Wildcats, or even fend off Florida, if their team defense doesn’t improve dramatically. The ‘Dores ranked a meager 88th in the nation in defensive efficiency last season, a mark good for tenth in the SEC, well behind the likes of both Kentucky and Florida. Their inadequacies on defense were a major reason why those of us tantalized by Vandy’s talent last season was so dumbfounded when they couldn’t quite put it all together on a sustained basis and why they ultimately dropped their final two games of the season to Florida and to #12 seed Richmond. The most confusing part: Vandy seemingly has the ancillary parts to be a strong defensive club. Taylor is regarded by NBA scouts as a premier stopper on the perimeter and Ezeli ranked 16th in block percentage in 2010-11.

Taylor needs to coax his teammates into playing stronger defense

The near-unanimous reaction following the NBA Draft declaration deadline was that Texas was the big loser. This isn’t necessarily false, but were we all that surprised Jordan Hamilton and Tristan Thompson bolted for the pros, especially once it was known Thompson would be a lottery selection? Playing with a fellow Canadian in Myck Kabongo may seem enticing until millions of dollars are staring you in the face. Hamilton was never suited for a structured college game, either, and could really take off in the pros as a polished, explosive scorer capable of putting up points in bunches. The most shocking decision was that of Cory Joseph, who opted to leave school primarily on the basis of one workout just prior to the deadline, a decision that very few saw coming from an undersized point guard without mature floor instincts. Joseph likely saw the writing on the wall – that he’d be playing primarily as a two-guard opposite Kabongo and this move would devastate his draft stock even more – and ditched while he had a chance at the first round. Ben Howland must have been even more crushed than Rick Barnes, though. With Derrick Williams and Momo Jones out in Tucson, the opportunity was there to re-establish UCLA’s status as the premier Pac-10 representative after two tumultuous seasons. Tyler Honeycutt and Malcolm Lee are far from locks to have their name called in the first round, yet both made the abrupt decision to forgo their remaining eligibility and take their talents to the NBA. With Honeycutt and Lee joining forces with Reeves Nelson, Josh Smith, Lazeric Jones, Jerime Anderson, Tyler Lamb and incoming two-guard Norman Powell in the fray, UCLA had a top-10 roster had the parts stayed together. It’s a shame, really.

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Ten Tuesday Scribbles

Posted by zhayes9 on March 1st, 2011

Zach Hayes is an editor, contributor and bracketologist for Rush the Court.

Some bad news for those of you expecting the bubble to shrink in the next two weeks: the number of potential bid stealers is smaller than I can ever remember. The most likely candidates in previous years were out of Memphis-dominated Conference USA, Butler-dominated Horizon or WCC-dominated Gonzaga, but this season none of those three perennial powerhouses are locks for the dance, rendering each conference a one (or two in the WCC with Saint Mary’s) league. In fact, all three likely need to win their respective tournaments to feel safe on Selection Sunday. The Missouri Valley is also shaping up as a one-bid league for the fifth straight year and BYU, San Diego State and UNLV (playing the tournament at their home floor in Vegas) are so far ahead their Mountain West competition it’s highly unlikely any major upsets come to fruition. The same theory applies to Utah State in the WAC. One team that I do feel could snag a bid from a mediocre bubble team is Southern California out of the Pac-10 in a replay of 2009 when the #6 seed Trojans at 9-9 in the league rode DeMar DeRozan, Daniel Hackett and Taj Gibson to a surprising automatic berth. With 12 losses overall on the season – including black marks against Rider, Bradley and TCU from early in the campaign– Kevin O’Neill’s squad clearly needs to complete a sweep of the conference tournament to go dancing. Depth and consistent scoring has been a recurring issue all season, but the talent is in place with a frontcourt duo of Nikola Vucevic (17.5 PPG, 10.3 RPG) and Alex Stephenson and the growing comfort level of point guard transfer Jio Fontan, who tied a season-high with 21 points in Thursday’s upset win over Arizona. USC also has the highest defensive efficiency in the Pac-10 and limited Arizona star Derrick Williams to just eight points. Watch out for the Trojans in two weekends as a sneaky candidate to turn the Pac-10 a four-bid league.

Nikola Vucevic and USC is a possible bid stealer in two weeks

A tip of the cap is in order for Frank Martin and his Kansas State Wildcats. Most skewered the hard-nosed coach for losing control of his program during K-State’s numerous low points –from the loss in Kansas City to UNLV sans Jacob Pullen and Curtis Kelly to the embarrassing blowout at rival Kansas with Gameday in the house to once-heralded recruit Wally Judge leaving the team – but it’s my opinion that Martin’s demanding style may have actually kept this team afloat while coaches that run their program with a softer hand may have had a total implosion on their hands. The combination of Martin’s constant yearning for focus, effort and execution out of his players and a senior in Pullen who flat-out refused to let his team hit rock bottom has led to a resurgence that would have been unfathomable three weeks ago. If you told me in early February that Kansas State, amidst all their turmoil and turnover, would win in Austin against what appeared to be a powerhouse Texas squad, I’d never have believed you. The Wildcats now shape up extremely well not only to make the NCAA Tournament – stellar RPI/SOS, wins over Kansas, Texas and Missouri and an ascent up the Big 12 standings – but also to make a Sweet 16-type run behind Pullen, the improving play of Curtis Kelly and the underrated contributions of Rodney McGruder.

BYU doesn’t exactly have the most glowing NCAA Tournament history. In fact, their first round victory over Florida last year was BYU’s first tournament win since 1993. The same reprieve is often played out under the bright lights of March: the softer, finesse, untested Cougars face a tough, physical, athletic opponent from a power six league and go into the fetal position. My admiration for Fredette was the singular reason I chose BYU as my second round upset pick last year to beat K-State. After an opening 10-0 run, BYU was thoroughly dismantled by the springy Wildcats and Jacob Pullen outplayed his counterpart Fredette. This trend was precisely why I believed San Diego State would take care of business last Saturday. Sure, the Cougars took care of business in a building they rarely ever lose in late January, but the Aztecs are that nightmarish matchup – a team full of bouncy, athletic, board-banging skilled players like Kawhi Leonard and Malcolm Thomas – that give the Cougars fits historically. Then BYU came out and blocked seven shots. They were barely out-rebounded. Thomas scored nine points and Leonard was limited to six field goals. Along with Fredette’s wizardry and the jump shooting ability of his teammates, I was doubly impressed by BYU’s attitude and toughness in such a raucous environment against an opponent I perceived as a matchup problem. Their zone defense was fantastic and their offensive execution – both in the halfcourt when Fredette was constantly doubled off of ball screens and in transition opportunities – was picture perfect. I’m a buyer.

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Ten Tuesday Scribbles

Posted by zhayes9 on February 22nd, 2011

Zach Hayes is an editor, contributor and bracketologist for Rush the Court.

- I deemed Saturday’s Washington-Arizona game appointment viewing with the specific intent of watching Derrick Williams for 40 minutes. I had seen Williams play multiple times this season, but mostly for small snippets against weaker competition in the Pac-10. Williams is an absolutely outstanding collegiate player that flashes moments of brilliance on the basketball court. He attacks the glass with ferocity, can face up or back an opponent down and is outstanding in isolation situations. I’m not sure Williams has the personality or the attitude to completely take over long stretches of a game like Kemba Walker, Jimmer Fredette or Nolan Smith, but nobody utilizes his possessions with more proficiency than Williams. When he chooses to enter another gear, as he did for the majority of the final five minutes of an Arizona win that effectively clinched the Pac-10 regular season title, he’s impossible to contain. If I were the Cavaliers GM – although I shouldn’t assume they’ll win the lottery based on that city’s tortured sports past – I’d snag Williams #1 overall over the likes of Kyrie Irving, Perry Jones, Jared Sullinger or any other entry. You think Williams is a special prospect now, just wait until he’s playing with an NBA-caliber pass-first point guard. His all-around excellence in isolation situations and ability to knock down shots anywhere on the floor are tailor made for the pros. I see him developing into a better David West. The only area Williams needs to shore up is avoiding foul trouble. Arizona must have their superstar on the floor for more than 29.2 PPG in the NCAA Tournament if the Wildcats want to advance. Williams has picked up four or more personals in eight Pac-10 games this year.

Derrick Williams clutch block clinched Saturday's win over Washington

- Duke shouldn’t be #1 in the nation. I think most of us agree with that sentiment. Thankfully, we adore a sport where these kinds of things are irrelevant, especially in late February. What bothers me is that most have Duke pegged as a #1 seed over Kansas and BYU, two candidates much more deserving of this honor than the Blue Devils. The Cougars resume is actually incredibly impressive, more so than their MWC brethren San Diego State. The Fightin Jimmers have five wins vs. the RPI top-30 and Duke has two. BYU beat San Diego State, Arizona, Utah State, Saint Mary’s and swept UNLV. Duke’s best win after North Carolina is Kansas State followed by UAB (currently out) and Michigan State (bubble). The Blue Devils have yet to beat an NCAA Tournament team on the road. Sure, this has plenty to do with the fragile state of the ACC, but don’t overlook Duke’s annual resistance to play true road games out of conference. Plus, since when do we provide Duke a scheduling excuse over a MWC team? The overall records are identical. The reason Duke is first in the polls is basically because they didn’t lose during a week they played Virginia and Georgia Tech. Vaulting Duke on the back of those  two wins over the entire body of work of, say, Ohio State and Pittsburgh, is ridiculous enough in itself. Handing them an undeserving #1 seed at this stage in the season is an even worse idea (luckily we still have 20 days till Selection Sunday, so this is largely irrelevant as well, but it sure is fun to debate, no?).

I’m hearing plenty of candidates thrown out there for National Coach of the Year, and none of them are egregious. Coaches like Mike Brey, Steve Fisher, Matt Painter, Jim Calhoun, Steve Lavin and Sean Miller have all done outstanding jobs this season leading their teams to unforeseen heights. To me, the coach of the year is a runaway and his name hasn’t been mentioned: Rick Pitino. I was initially hesitant to buy into the Cardinals, especially after they won all their non-conference games in the comfort of the KFC Yum Center and both Butler and UNLV underachieved relative to expectations. Now that I’ve watched Louisville sweep Connecticut, edge Syracuse and West Virginia, pull off an epic comeback against Marquette and down St. John’s, the magic act Pitino has pulled in the face of tremendous adversity is becoming more and more evident. All five starters from last year’s #9 seed squad left. His top freshman didn’t qualify. His leading returning scorer hasn’t played a minute. Still, by pulling out his old tricks of a relentless full-court press, switching defenses and an abundance of threes, the ‘Ville has jumped from likely NIT team to a #4 seed in my latest bracket. Say what you want about his forays into the back of Italian restaurants or his failed NBA coaching stints, but in case anyone forgot, this season was a definite reminder: Rick Pitino can motivate, prepare and instruct college athletes better than anyone in the business. Read the rest of this entry »

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Ten Tuesday Scribbles

Posted by zhayes9 on February 15th, 2011

Zach Hayes is an editor, contributor and bracketologist for Rush the Court.

The Bob Cousy Award for the best point guard in college basketball released their finalists last week. The majority of the selections are uncontroversial and fair, from Kemba Walker to Jimmer Fredette and even Cleveland State’s Norris Cole. The biggest problem I have with the list has to be Illinois’ Demetri McCamey over Wisconsin’s Jordan Taylor. This may sound like an easy argument to make after Taylor’s heroic second half to dethrone Ohio State on Saturday, but this was a glaring mistake as early as last Thursday when Illinois coach Bruce Weber benched McCamey for the start of the Minnesota game. The issues involving McCamey are festering and his production has dramatically declined. The senior point guard has scored in double figures just twice in his last six games and Illinois is 2-4 during that stretch. McCamey has notched 25 assists and 21 turnovers during that six-game stretch while Jordan Taylor leads the nation in the category. It’s also the peripheral comments that have stood out involving Weber and his point guard, an on-and-off feud dating back to late last season when his frustration with McCamey extended to the bench in a crucial late March contest with Wisconsin. Weber ranted that runners, agents and third-party people are in McCamey’s ear telling him he should be a pro and, following a 1-10 shooting performance against Purdue, said in his postgame comments that the offensive difference in the second half for the Boilermakers was “all dribble penetration” by Lewis Jackson and that some players “don’t give quite the effort on the other end” when they don’t make a shot. Keep an eye on this developing situation in Champaign. The Illini should feel fairly safe about their NCAA Tournament chances, but their seed is dipping quickly and McCamey is at the epicenter of this slow collapse.

McCamey and Weber are clashing again

Two championship programs, two legendary head coaches, two separate issues with zone defenses. Both Syracuse and Connecticut have slipped a bit from their quick starts to the season and the main reasons are both related to zones. Syracuse’s best offensive lineup is with C.J. Fair and Kris Joseph at the forward spots and Rick Jackson at center, but this leaves them vulnerable in their patented 2-3 zone because it’s such a small lineup. The Orange also miss the length and defensive IQ of Andy Rautins at the top of their zone and Big East teams are shooting 47% from three in Syracuse’s losses as a result. As Casey Mitchell, Kyle Kuric and Jeremy Hazell have shown in recent games, getting open looks from beyond the arc isn’t quite the challenge at it was a season ago. The effort on close-outs, rotation and communication of the 2-3 this year has been inconsistent and could lead to the early demise of a Syracuse team that really only has three quality wins this season – Notre Dame, at St. John’s, at Connecticut. The Huskies have their own issues with a matchup zone and it was glaringly obvious during that loss at home to the Orange. Unlike Pittsburgh who utilized Nasir Robinson around the free throw line to attack holes in the zone through passing, shooting or penetration, Connecticut doesn’t have a forward who’s comfortable in this spot – Alex Oriakhi and Charles Okwandu looked lost at times vs. the Orange — and they haven’t been a particularly good outside shooting team since Kemba Walker’s slump began. Teams are noticing UConn’s struggles against a zone defense. Jim Calhoun better prepare to see it plenty come March.

Kansas State’s season was on the line Monday and it showed. Falter last night and, with a game in Austin still on the slate, the best case scenario for the Wildcats is 8-8 in the Big 12 provided they beat Missouri. Although the NIT remains a respectable tournament that any team should be proud to participate in (contrary to what you may hear from Jacob Pullen), a program ranked #3 in the nation preseason slipping to that type of depth is unacceptable. Last night confirmed one of my longstanding beliefs about the sport: motivation has the power to surpass any other factor – from talent disparity to coaching to home court atmosphere – when it comes to college basketball. With the #1 team in the nation both in the polls and in the RPI coming to Manhattan, along with the emasculation those same Jayhawks put on their in-state foes a few weeks ago in Lawrence, motivation was at a fever pitch. For one night, Jacob Pullen backed up the preseason All-American hype, notching the second most points ever against a #1 ranked team, barely trailing Elvin Hayes’ legendary performance for Houston against #1 UCLA in 1968. The 62nd most efficient offense in the country shot over 50% and notched 84 points against a top ten efficient defense. They dominated points in the paint and neutralized the Morris twins. Frank Martin has been telling anyone who will listen that his team is making strides. Last night was an enormous leap, and with another top-50 win opportunity in Missouri coming to Bramlage on February 26, Pullen may not have to worry about the torturous NIT after all.

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Ten Tuesday Scribbles

Posted by zhayes9 on February 8th, 2011

Zach Hayes is an editor, contributor and bracketologist for Rush the Court.

Isn’t it fantastic that Duke-North Carolina means something again? Last year’s Blue Devil dominance coupled with a bleak NIT season from their Tobacco Road rivals produced a lackluster two-game set between these hated competitors culminating in a Senior Day thrashing for the ages at Cameron. With Kyrie Irving buoying a seemingly unstoppable Duke attack and UNC still figuring themselves out, it looked to be more of the same refrain during non-conference play, but obviously much has transpired since then: Tyler Zeller has grasped a go-to scorers role, Kendall Marshall has supplanted the now-departed Larry Drew at the point and, most importantly, Irving suffered a toe injury that’s kept him on the sidelines and Duke has had to change their style once again. The last point could loom large during Wednesday’s meeting in Durham. I fully expect Duke to win, but the pressurized, relentless, full-court attack that Duke employed with Irving was going to pose a challenge for Marshall setting up the Tar Heel halfcourt offense and containing the much quicker Irving defensively. Given Duke’s adjustment to a halfcourt-oriented offense with an emphasis on screening for Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith, the Blue Devils won’t provide as much of a headache for the inexperienced Marshall. Thus, I expect a closer-knit affair on Wednesday, and any tight Duke-UNC game is a victory for college basketball.

Roy Williams has his Heels peaking as they head into Cameron

It might surprise you to know that Arizona has 20 wins already. The quick-fix rebuilding job Sean Miller has orchestrated in Tucson is nothing short of extraordinary, but it’s appropriate to point out that none of it would have been possible if not for the Tim Floyd disaster at USC. Most forget that Pac-10 POY frontrunner Derrick Williams and Arizona starting point guard Lamont Jones were both USC commits under Floyd until the O.J. Mayo situation surfaced, Floyd resigned and the two talented recruits signed on with Miller at Arizona. Williams (19.5 PPG, 8.1 RPG, 63% FG) has molded into a lottery pick as a sophomore and Jones’ heroics down the stretch at California provided the Wildcats with a breathtaking road victory and propelled them to first in the Pac-10. To claim Miller’s reloading effort as mostly luck is doing the fantastic coach a disservice, though. Miller’s coaching acumen was displayed during his 120-47 run at Xavier and his recruiting has already produced a 2011 recruiting class that rivals Lute Olson’s top efforts. Where this Arizona program stood two springs ago during their frantic and humbling search for a head coach to their position today atop the conference and with a bright future ahead is staggering.

The road ahead is treacherous for Baylor, which is both a good thing and a bad thing. On one hand, the resuscitated Bears have an ample amount of opportunities to collect quality wins down the stretch with trips to Austin, Columbia and Stillwater and a return trip from the Longhorns on the docket. On the other hand, good luck winning those games! The fact that Baylor is even in the discussion (their best non-conference win is Pac-10 bottom feeder Arizona State at home) shows the current state of the bubble in a 68-team environment. Regardless, the development of Perry Jones should give Bears fans hope that a late season surge could be approaching. The multi-talented future lottery pick is making tremendous strides lately. He’s scored in double-digits every game in Big 12 play including 24 points against Oklahoma State and a banner performance on Saturday at A&M where he scored 27 points on 9-16 FG and 9-9 FT. Jones is becoming much more comfortable knocking down a smooth mid-range jumper, attacking the glass and playing within Scott Drew’s offense. At 14.7 PPG, 7.0 RPG and 57% FG in over 33 MPG, Jones has quietly posted a stellar freshman campaign in the shadow of Sullinger, Jones and other prominent diaper dandies.

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Ten Tuesday Scribbles

Posted by zhayes9 on February 1st, 2011

Zach Hayes is an editor, contributor and bracketologist at Rush the Court.

- As we head into the crucial weeks of February, three groupings of teams will likely emerge: one group that’s been playing over their heads through the first couple months and will quickly take a nosedive down the rankings as their flaws become more evident and exposed, one that has likely hit their peak and will consistently maintain their current ranking for the remainder of the season and, the most intriguing group, the teams that will continue to improve, develop and progress before hitting their crescendo right around March Madness. Some possible candidates for the third group include Texas, Missouri, Washington, Connecticut and North Carolina. The most obvious possibility for rapid improvement as we head into the stretch run, though, has to be Kentucky. One could make an argument they’ll be a top five team in the nation by tournament time as their trio of ultra-talented freshmen — Brandon Knight, Terrence Jones and the incredibly undervalued Doron Lamb – see their comfort level rise and their overall floor games advance. Regardless of the personnel upheaval that John Calipari welcomes during his recruitment of one-and-done players, his team’s always defend. This Kentucky team, led by the lockdown length of DeAndre Liggins and the wily experience of junior Darius Miller, has proved no different, ranking tenth in the nation in overall defensive efficiency and fourth in opponents two-point FG%. Before you point out that last year’s Kentucky team led by John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins – a team that was probably more talented with five first round selections – flamed out in the Elite 8, remember that this Wildcats squad can do what last year’s version could not: make perimeter jump shots. Kentucky is shooting 40% from three as a unit this season, good for 17th in the country.

Knight and UK still have room to grow, a scary thought for their SEC opposition

- Jimmer Fredette has become the face of college basketball. Due to his dynamic scoring prowess, cult-like following and unusual name (seriously, if Chris Smith was doing this, would this fad be quite as viral?) my Twitter feed was flooded last Wednesday night with everything Jimmer from friends that I never knew had a real interest in the sport until their post-Super Bowl hangover was complete. With every Kemba Walker misfire, it’s more and more clear the frontrunner for National Player of the Year is currently starring  in Provo. Walker is mired in a prolonged slump over his last four games, shooting a porous 23% from the floor in 74 attempts including a 7-for-23 performance in Saturday’s home loss to Louisville. Fortunately for Walker, the emergence of his young supporting cast, notably Jeremy Lamb and Shabazz Napier, hasn’t caused the Huskies to dip into a considerable funk. Despite Walker’s post-Maui craze and his repeated heroics late in games against Texas and Villanova, Fredette has cleared usurped Walker as the talk of the college basketball world. What ultimately matters, though, is team success, and I still feel the undersized Cougars, who are increasingly over-dependent on Fredette late in games as they were Saturday at the Pit, have a much lower ceiling than Walker’s Huskies.

- What can I possibly say about Texas that hasn’t already been said? Never did I expect to be outwardly commending Jordan Hamilton’s effort on the defensive end at any point in his collegiate career, but the work he and Dogus Balbay did last night against A&M leading scorer Khris Middleton was phenomenal. Hamilton even said after the game he was going to “guard him as hard as I’ve ever guarded before.” We all know the Longhorns have scoring weapons – from the smooth operating of Hamilton to the mid-range game of Gary Johnson and the post ability of Tristan Thompson – but it’s the Longhorns unwavering commitment at the defensive end against capable Big 12 opponents that has college basketball fans bullish about Texas’ prospects of cutting down the nets in Houston. Texas has climbed the defensive efficiency rankings to tops in the nation and also rank first in effective FG% against. They’re third in the country in both two-point and three-point defense and can throw out A-plus perimeter defenders in Cory Joseph and Dogus Balbay and lengthy, shot-blocking, interior weapons like Thompson, Johnson and even Alexis Wangmene off the pine. The Big 12 totals are stellar- no opponent of Texas has scored more than 63 points and they’ve held their last four opponents to 33% shooting from the field and 20% from three. And they’re doing it on the road against ranked teams. If you appreciate aggressive, tenacious, inspired, man-to-man defense, there’s no better team to watch than Texas.

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Ten Tuesday Scribbles

Posted by zhayes9 on January 25th, 2011

Zach Hayes is an editor, contributor and bracketologist for Rush the Court.

- The last second Cory Joseph-led triumph over North Carolina in Greensboro opened some eyes to the legitimacy of the Texas Longhorns, but it was directly following their evisceration of Michigan State at the Breslin Center when I pegged Rick Barnes’ squad as my official Final Four sleeper. Following a dismantling of Texas A&M on their home floor and a stunning come-from-behind win in Allen Fieldhouse against previously unbeaten Kansas—for my money the single most impressive win of the season to date – I think it’s time we elevate the Longhorns from Final Four contender to justifiable national champion candidate. It’s difficult to believe that this same program is just eight months removed from a historic and embarrassing collapse that saw a #1 Texas team in the nation in mid-January fall out of the rankings to a #8 seed in the NCAA Tournament and a first-round flameout, but the infusion of heady, intelligent and talented freshmen, the maturation of Jordan Hamilton, the cleansing of players with varying agendas and a severe rotation trimming has convinced most followers of the sport that last season’s disintegration is no longer relevant to discuss. Trying to discover a weakness on this Texas squad is a challenging task; even the free throw headaches that plagued last year’s team have improved from the depths of Division I to the point where it in all likelihood won’t single-handedly cost them a game. Their team defense is tenacious and hounding, ranking second in the nation in efficiency and in the top ten in both two-point and three-point field goal defense with stoppers in the paint (see: Tristan Thompson’s length and athleticism forcing Marcus Morris to become a three-point chucker) and on the perimeter (Dogus Balbay and Cory Joseph are two of the best). With capable scorers that line the roster and a scoring extraordinaire that will take and make any shot in the gym, the Longhorns have jumped from the unranked to the second best team in the nation in many evaluators’ eyes, the polar opposite of a downfall last season that’s long in the past.

Barnes and Johnson are leading Texas up the rankings

- The biggest basketball game in the history of the Mountain West conference will take place Wednesday night when top-ten foes BYU and San Diego State clash at the Marriott Center in Provo. Even though ESPN isn’t broadcasting the game, the hype surrounding this showdown will build considerably in the hours ahead until Wednesday night’s late tip off. The atmosphere should be absolutely electric and the stakes are considerably high: a win over an RPI top ten foe, a leg up in the race to win the fourth ranked RPI conference in the nation, a number one seed and potential undefeated campaign for the Aztecs and a jump to the second seed line for the home Cougars, to name a few. What’s so fascinating about this matchup is the contrast in styles. BYU, led by the captivating Jimmer Fredette and his capable sidekick Jackson Emery, is more backcourt-focused, a team whose guards generate steals and fast break opportunities, shoot 37% from deep, rank third in the nation in turnover percentage and has a member of their backcourt (Fredette) that uses 33% of his teams’ possessions. San Diego State, meanwhile, features an abundance of depth in their frontcourt, led by the explosive trio of Kawhi Leonard, Billy White and Malcolm Thomas. The physical and bruising San Diego State frontline boosts the Aztecs to first in block percentage, eighth in two-point field goal percentage and 23rd in offensive rebounding percentage in the nation. BYU has crumbled in the past when facing superior athleticism and it’s a legitimate concern as to whether the Cougars have the horses up front to match Leonard, White and Thomas. Playing in front of their raucous home fans in an arena where BYU rarely falters should help tremendously.

– So, raise your hand if you had Kansas and Pittsburgh both losing at home in a span of three days. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention/discuss Notre Dame’s jaw-dropping win last night at a place where Pittsburgh is normally invincible just two days following Kansas surrendering their nation-pacing 69-game home winning streak. It’s especially remarkable when you consider that in Notre Dame’s previous two Big East road games at St. John’s and Marquette, two teams that may not make the NCAA Tournament, the Irish lost by a combined 40 points. Give Mike Brey and his team tons and tons of credit for executing and believing in a “burn” gameplan that exhausted the shot clock continuously, limited possessions (ND totaled 37 of 56 points with 11 seconds or fewer on the shot clock) and trusted Ben Hansbrough to create his own shot under enormous pressure. Pittsburgh insisted on switching ball screens and pick-and-roll situations which left Nasir Robinson and the less-than-agile Gary McGhee trying to front Hansbrough in space. The progress that Hansbrough has made improving his conditioning and all-around repertoire from perimeter gunner to capable penetrator, floor general and three-point marksman since his Mississippi State days has been staggering. Although Hansbrough donned the Superman cape late, it was matchup nightmare Carleton Scott that kept the Irish within striking distance by knocking down critical shots all night long. Scott is truly an X-factor and difference maker for Brey, a weapon the Irish didn’t have during those two blowout losses to St. John’s and Marquette.

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Ten Tuesday Scribbles

Posted by zhayes9 on January 18th, 2011

Zach Hayes is an editor, contributor and bracketologist for Rush the Court.

- Outside of Duke, if there’s one team in the ACC that I’m not concerned about, it’s Maryland. The Terps are sitting at a pedestrian 11-6 on the season, but Gary Williams challenged his team on numerous occasions in the non-conference and that strategy should pay off as we head into February and March. Despite losing three senior starters and integral pieces in Greivis Vasquez, Eric Hayes and Landon Milbourne, Maryland hasn’t lost by double digits yet this season, a list of competitive contests that includes Pittsburgh, Duke, Illinois, Villanova, Temple and Boston College. The blown 12-point second half lead at Villanova last Saturday had to be the most heartbreaking for Gary and his staff, a true road game against a top ten team squandered when the jump shot evaded them and their guards forgot that Jordan Williams is their best player for about a six minute stretch. Williams continues to play phenomenal basketball and has to be second behind Jared Sullinger as far as true back-to-the-basket post presences are concerned in college basketball. He’s rebounding at a sky-high rate, drawing fouls with great frequency, shoots 56% from the field and rarely makes bad decisions. The Terps currently rank first in the entire country in defensive efficiency, allowing opponents to shoot just 40% from inside the arc on the season. Other than road trips to Virginia Tech and North Carolina, along with a visit to College Park from Duke, it wouldn’t stun me if the Terps ran the table during the rest of ACC play. At 22-9 (11-5) or 21-10 (10-6) with a stellar RPI/SOS, Williams won’t be sweating come Selection Sunday.

Williams has been a monster in the post for the Terps

- Speaking of Selection Sunday, I released my first Bracketology of the season on Monday and what stood out had to be the Big East garnering 11 bids to the NCAA Tournament out of 16 conference representatives. That is a staggering total and not necessarily controversial. The team that was closest to the bubble in this week’s edition from the Big East was Marquette, who, like Maryland, posted a plethora of competitive losses to elite teams. Had the Golden Eagles just hung on to an 18-point lead late in the second half at Louisville last Saturday, they would be a shoe-in for the bracket. It’s truly been the perfect storm for the Big East this season in terms of collecting bids with the ACC, SEC and Pac-10 experiencing lackluster campaigns and overachievers relative to preseason expectations like Connecticut, Louisville, Notre Dame and St. John’s all throwing their names into the ring for possible berths. I expect the Big East to collect an absolute minimum of nine teams into the NCAA Tournament this season. The most likely squads to sink into NIT status are probably Cincinnati and St. John’s, but the former has collected such a breadth of victories already and the latter has quality wins at West Virginia and home against Georgetown and Notre Dame with plenty more opportunities ahead.

- This surprising statistic was pointed out during the North Carolina-Virginia Tech contest last Thursday and bears repeating: if Harrison Barnes just made one more field goal per game (these stats compiled before the Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech games), his numbers jump to 14.1 PPG, 47% FG and 40% 3pt. To put that into context, Kentucky’ s Brandon Knight, who has been viewed publicly as putting together a respectable freshman campaign, is averaging 17.5 PPG, 46% FG and 41% 3pt. The pressure placed on Barnes’ shoulders as a preseason All-American and savior of such a heralded program was considerable, and despite his perceived struggles, most believe that this kid’s basketball future remains extremely bright. Barnes is still considered by most NBA scouts and general managers as a top five pick in next year’s Draft. While not the near-consensus number one selection he was anointed months ago, nobody would blame Barnes if he left Carolina after this season to make millions as a lottery pick. Despite all of that, it’s my personal opinion that remaining at Chapel Hill for a sophomore year would do wonders for Barnes. If John Henson and Tyler Zeller elect to return, Carolina will contend for an ACC title. As a second-year player, the pressure and spotlight would wane dramatically from this season. Barnes would also have another year at school to refine, perfect and develop his game and he’d still receive boatloads of publicity and attention playing at a premiere basketball institution. If the stigma wasn’t so strong today for star freshmen staying another season, this decision would seem obvious. I’d like to think a kid with the awareness and intelligence of Barnes will ignore that noise.

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